George Orwell wrote prophetically in 1943:
“In the last twenty years Western civilization has given the intellectual security without responsibility….It has educated him in skepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape, some form of self-justification there must be….These creeds have the advantage that they aim at the impossible and therefore in effect demand very little….The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitudes of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously….
“The fact that the eastern nations have shown themselves at least as warlike and bloodthirsty as the western ones, that so far from rejecting industrialism, the East is adopting it as swiftly as it can—this is irrelevant, since what is wanted is the mythos of the peaceful, religious and patriarchal East to set against the greedy and materialistic West….We shall be hearing a lot about the superiority of eastern civilization in the next few years.”
In the first paragraph, Orwell was focusing on how intellectuals transfer their allegiance to their country’s enemies. At the time, he was talking about the Communist USSR and Nazi Germany. But he might just as well have been talking about their resentment of the existing system. It’s interesting to approach this issue from a traditional kind of socialist or even Marxist approach:
Large sectors of Western intellectuals, culture producers, and unproductive segments of the upper middle class (the kind of people who work in higher-paid government jobs and non-profit organizations included) have long been deeply resentful of the capitalist ruling class. But rather than join with the toiling masses in an alliance (the historic Marxist view), they see the masses in their own country–the contemporary working class, small businesspeople, white-collar workers, and farmers–as reactionary materialists.
They see their chosen allies instead as those who are expected to be discontented with the system: the poor (who Marxists contemptuously called the lumpenproletariat), the young, racial minorities within the country, and a huge pool of new immigrants, legal or otherwise. There are also sympathies with radical regimes or revolutionary movements (today, often radical Islamist ones) abroad. That is not to say whether or not this alliance makes sense or can work. There are many weaknesses in this conception but this discussion will be left for another time.
By the way, one interesting feature here is the dropping of women’s liberation issues, which is a subject that could also be analyzed at length. It is a return of the old left and radical nationalist practice of subordinating women’s interests to a “larger” cause. One aspect that is important is that issues involving women’s equality in Muslim-majority states or communities can thus be ignored.
Today, the basic strategy of this movement is a statist policy to gain control of society through bureaucratic power rather than revolution. Having already seized the commanding heights of idea production (culture, education, media), they would become an effective ruling class by centralizing power in a government (or European Union bureaucracy) that provides massive employment for them (directly and through grants or payments) and governs on the basis of regulations they produce. Who needs control of the means of production directly when one has control of a government body that regulates the means of production or huge amounts of capital?
Incidentally, Orwell dealt with this issue also in an essay. See how what he says corresponds to what’s going on now, most clearly through the European Union which is replacing elected governments in its control over society:
“Laissez-faire capitalism gives way to planning and state interference, the mere owner loses power as against the technician and the bureaucrat, but Socialism–that is to say, what used to be called Socialism–shows no sign of emerging.” Orwell viewed this system as an enemy of democratic socialism–as he did Stalinist Communism–since it is designed to benefit a new ruling class rather than the majority of the people.
A major tenet of this strategy is to gain popular support by offering “free” tax-funded benefits to supporters funneled through the government. But the main “redistribution of wealth” is not to promote some socialist-style equality but merely a way of buying votes and ensuring the new ruling class’s power.
Orwell writes: “Power can sometimes be won or maintained without violence, but never without fraud because it is necessary to make use of the masses and the masses are led on by vague dreams of human brotherhood….”
Today, this how “social justice,” “multiculturalism,” and “political correctness” function as slogans used by the would-be new ruling class to mobilize popular support against the old ruling class. Lenin bragged that he would get the capitalists to sell him the rope by which to hang them. Today, the equivalent goes much further: persuuading the capitalists (or their offspring) that they have to give up power because they want to be good, moral, fashionable, progressive people.
Of course, the result can be seen today in countries like Greece. As the economy’s unproductive sector grows, luxury policies (including excessive environmental regulations) and pay-outs become too burdensome; business is strangled and over-taxedl and society inevitably heads into a downward spiral. Escape is nearly impossible because those receiving massive benefits rebel against the cuts needed to save the country, while politicians are too fearful to take the required measures.
Conservative and right-wing groups that portray these people and their strategies as socialist and Marxist–much less liberals–are missing the point, using ideas decades out of date. One result of making this mistake is that their opponents can persuasively ridicule them as inaccurate and make appeals for support to large numbers of liberals and centrists who might otherwise be horrified by what’s going on.
(Here’s a simple proof: If the goal was redistribution of wealth, a very large portion of the Stimulus and other money would be going for projects to rebuild inner cities, provide jobs for poor people, and train them for productive employment and to open small businesses. Why is the Stimulus and the “jobs’ bill” that followed doing so much less for working people and the poorer of society than the New Deal (which provided massive employment far more effectively on far less money) and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign? True the Stimulus was designed to deal with the economic downturn but if the administration was so ideologically bent in the direction its critics think, wouldn’t that have affected its design?)
Back to Orwell. Note particularly the last sentence of Orwell’s first paragraph: “The life of an English gentleman and the moral attitudes of a saint can be enjoyed simultaneously.”
So you can drive your SUV and save the earth; enjoy a high living standard while telling average Americans and Chinese or Indians that they cannot morally have the same thing; cheer on totalitarian regimes and movements to oppress others (it’s their culture to have dictators and torture dissidents, you see [sarcasm]) while yourself enjoying freedom. Even better, you can look down on those “uneducated,” “backward,” and “primitive” people with whom you have to co-exist who don’t recognize that you know everything and they know nothing. And given that situation, there is no reason to listen to those people at all, even to take seriously and honestly rebut their arguments.
Regarding Orwell’s second paragraph, imagine the stir if Orwell made such a remark today. Yet we are indeed living in a time when the West has rejected dictatorship, intolerance, and imperialism, though we hear endlessly about its real or alleged past history as defined by such categories. Meanwhile, elements of the Third World have adapted these same things. Imperialism is now operating in a reverse geographical direction. On the basis of past misdeeds, which have been corrected, the West is asked to countenance current misdeeds which endanger its survival.
An example that bears keeping in mind is as follows. Britain and France treated Germany terribly in the immediate aftermath of World War One, demanding it admit war guilt and pay huge reparations. Yet using these past sins as a rationale for giving concessions to Germany in the 1930s, a decade later, led to disaster. The situation, to put it mildly, had changed.
On the question of industrialization, I was taught this point almost forty years ago, on my first visit to China, when a Chinese worker explained to me that the dream of everyone in that country was to have a car, a big house, and other luxuries that people enjoyed in the West. And why shouldn’t they have that dream if they are willing to work to fulfill it?
Here, though, are a couple of ideas that should be at the center of serious debate today but aren’t:
–The true nature of the ideology and movement currently enjoying hegemony in Europe and North America, and why has it turned against the interests of the great majority of its own people, including the working class.
Someone should do a serious study of how the views of the 1960s-1970s radicals–not Marxism but rather new working class theory, viewing the American masses as benefitting from imperialism, and revolutionary youth movement ideas–are embodied in the current ideology.
–How the West has abandoned imperialism, hatred of other groups, chauvinistic nationalism, and aggression while elements in the Third World have taken on these characteristics, using them against the West and other Third World peoples.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.